Many businesses may portray themselves as being in the heart of Naperville, but its true geographic center is approximately Naperville Plaza.
When it was built in 1961, the transitioning farm town’s first strip mall at Washington Street and Gartner Road was actually on the southern outskirts of town.
“If you threw a rock in any direction, you’d hit a cornfield,” remembers Bill Anderson of the center that featured W.T. Grants (a national discount chain), a medical building, Jewel and Washington Bank. “It was a thriving plaza.”
Perhaps. But Harry Dolan thinks Naperville Plaza’s heyday is now.
“The key to a successful shopping center is tenant mix. We’ve attained almost a perfect tenant mix,” Dolan said. “It just took 39 years to get there.”
Dolan, previously the project manager of the young Oakbrook Center, bought Naperville Plaza in 1974 with two partners after the original developers — Harold Moser, Dr. Glenn Wolfe and Charles Shraeger — decided to sell.
“Dr. Wolfe’s accountant was a friend of one of my partners, ” Dolan said. “When we looked at it, we put an offer on it immediately — it was a great location but underbuilt.”
At that time, the corner offices between today’s Oswald’s Pharmacy and Casey’s Foods were the plaza medical building, home to Dr. Wolfe and several others. That building was flanked by Grants and Jewel. Also on the property were Washington Bank (where First Community and Badlands are now,) a gas station (where Great Harvest and other stores are now) and a Fotomat drive-through film developer.
In 1976, the partners fixed the “underbuilt” problem with a new 24,000-square-foot building along Gartner Road, where Dr. J.P. Weeks chose to open his first solo dental practice. He’s still there.
“When I moved in, Gartner had no bridge — it dead-ended at the river,” said Weeks, who spent his first four years out of dental school as an associate in an Elmhurst practice before striking out on his own in the growing town of Naperville.
“I liked everything about the building and my location — it just clicked. Naperville was just ... I felt good when I came through town,” said Weeks, who has walked from home to work all these years.
Like downtown Naperville, the plaza had its down years. But the early 1990s saw another resurgence. The gas station’s lease was up, so the partners tore it down to build an 8,100-square-foot building (Great Harvest was the first tenant), and Casey’s Foods bought the bankrupt Colony Foods.
“We jumped on that opportunity,” said owner Dan Casey, whose family had grocery stores in Villa Park and Western Springs at the time. “We knew the potential for this area. We had to put a lot of money into it — it was run down. But we hit Naperville at its stride, and it was a great location.”
Another milestone was when Trader Joe’s took over Women’s Workout World. Though counter intuitive for Casey to welcome a national specialty grocer to his parking lot, it happened thanks to Dolan’s urging and Casey’s instincts.
“They have a following, and I’d rather have them close to me than far away — more traffic into the center helps,” Casey said. “Besides, where we’re strong, they’re weak and where they’re strong we’re weak.”
But convincing Anderson to move Oswald’s Pharmacy, a 129-year-old business at the time of the 2004 move from downtown, was perhaps the biggest fish to land — and two fishermen take full credit.
“He was going to die downtown,” said Casey, whose grocery, after Alton Drugs closed, needed a drug store like ... well, like a drugstore needs a grocery store — and the last grocery store downtown had closed.
“It took me a couple of years of courting Bill to get him,” said Dolan, who said he was “certain” it was the right move for the historic business. “He needed parking.”
These days, Naperville Plaza has some happy parking problems of its own — at various times and days, Weight Watchers and Orange Theory clients show up in 20 to 30 cars.
“Those are customers who may not have come into the plaza before,” Casey said.
If you haven’t been to Naperville Plaza, new events begun in spring and continuing throughout the year will offer good reasons to stop by. Sidewalk sales are in July.
As its longest tenant, Dr. Weeks, noted: “It’s a neighborhood.”
Joni Hirsch Blackman is a journalist and author of “Downtown Naperville.” Contact her at email@example.com.